DETROIT: Trying to digest the first half of this Cavaliers season takes a strong fork and a healthy appetite.
They fired their general manager, endured two six-game losing streaks, ripped each other and the coaching staff, endured more rumors of Kyrie Irving wanting out and Irving himself conceding this has been the most difficult season of his career. They woefully underperformed given the preseason expectations, yet despite all of that, they enter this weekend’s All-Star break riding their first four-game winning streak in nearly four years.
“I don’t think I’ve really digested it all yet,” C.J. Miles said. “I don’t even think it’s digestible.”
Miles has been through this before. He watched how the losing in Utah turned Deron Williams into the target of a lot of vitriol, how Williams was blamed for driving Jerry Sloan into retirement.
Similarly, Irving became a target this season, and General Manager Chris Grant was fired. Players lashed out at each other in stories, both in the New York Daily News report depicting Luol Deng’s unhappiness with the locker room and the Beacon Journal’s report about players upset with Irving and Dion Waiters, plus complaints about Mike Brown’s coaching staff.
Miles never read any of the stories, but he heard plenty about them from the people around him.
“For the most part, from what I heard, there was some true stuff in there,” Miles said. “But what are you going to do about it? I guess we decided we wanted to do something about it, which was play basketball.”
Brown characterized the first half of the season as “inconsistent.” The Cavs had stretches when they didn’t even compete in terrible losses to the New York Knicks and the undermanned Los Angeles Lakers, but they also had a successful West Coast trip and showed flashes of promise.
They enter the All-Star break as the hottest team in the Eastern Conference and just three games out of the final playoff spot. Only the Houston Rockets (seven-game winning streak) are hotter. Given how low this season has fallen, it’s pretty remarkable they’ve positioned themselves to at least be relevant in the second half.
The firing of Grant and the very public garbage dumping on teammates served as a needed pressure release. After the stories were published a week ago, one team executive privately said, “now that all the [expletive] is out of the way, we can get back to playing basketball.”
The players seem to agree.
“There’s been a burden that’s been let go from all of us,” Irving said. “Everybody in this locker room is going to play for one another. Good, bad, ugly, if anyone has a bad game, good game, we’re going to support each other through it. That’s what it’s going to take to be a great team.”
There was a point, not long ago, when that didn’t seem possible — at least not with this group as presently constructed. But there was Waiters springing off the bench with a high-step dance after Irving buried a dagger-shot 3-pointer in Wednesday’s win over the Detroit Pistons, and there was Miles simultaneously doing a strange hip-shake dance.
Irving conceded a few days ago that he and Waiters are communicating better than they were early in the season. Players are laughing again before and after games, they’re playing freely and not worrying about every little mistake. The perfect illustration for that is rookie Anthony Bennett, who has resurrected himself from perhaps the worst start ever for a No. 1 pick to post his first double-double this week with career highs of 19 points and 10 rebounds in a win over the Sacramento Kings.
At one point not long ago, the burden of expectations was burying a team that began the season with the league’s second-youngest roster. Only now, they’re finally beginning to dig free.
“We put so much pressure on ourselves trying to dig out of that hole,” Miles said. “We were digging and digging, you’re not even climbing, you’re just digging and digging. Eventually you start hitting the sides and stuff starts collapsing on you. Instead we realized, ‘How ’bout I pick you up and you pick the next person up?’
“The biggest thing we always talk about is standing together. On that basketball court, that stops everything. You win some games, everything stops. This weekend they’re not going to talk about none of that stuff. They’re going to talk about how we went into the break the right way and how we’ve got a chance to turn this thing around when we come back, which is true. We make everything true.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.